When I was writing my thesis for my doctor of ministry, "What Does It Mean to Be a Christian in an Interfaith World," I found that I had also stepped onto the pathway to Progressive Christianity. My exploration of other religious traditions forced me to look at my own through a different lens and caused a radical shift in my theology.
A story to illustrate how it began.
I attended a funeral and happened to sit next to a friend from my interfaith women's group. The service was in an Episcopal church, and when the priest read the gospel, I heard the words I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me through the ears of my friend—who is Jewish. I myself have read that text at countless funerals, but this time I was appalled by its apparent exclusivism. I was profoundly disturbed by this and found myself unwilling to leave her sitting in the pew when it was time to go up for Communion.
So began a process of grappling with my own understanding of Christianity and of our sacred texts, especially John 14:6. It's one of those texts that we might be tempted to throw out or dismiss. However, I agree with Marcus Borg, who encourages us to take the Bible "seriously, but not literally." Deciding to tackle it head on, I chose to preach on it this year on Pluralism Sunday.
The first thing I wanted to clarify in my sermon was historical context. John's gospel was written some 60 years after Jesus died. So when we read it, we have to interpret it in light of the late first-century world of John's community rather than our twenty-first century world. Therefore John 14:6 cannot be understood as a claim made by a major world religion, which Christianity was not yet. Rather it is the creation of a first century community forming and articulating an understanding of who and what Jesus had been and continued to be for them.
Secondly, I wanted to put the passage into the literary context of John's gospel. In this section of the Farewell Discourse, Jesus is offering the disciples reassurance for the impending time of separation and grief, telling them, "Do not let your hearts be troubled... You know the way I am going." But Thomas' heart is troubled. So he asks the big question: "But how can we know the way?" And Jesus answers, "I am the Way . . ."
Note that Thomas' question is not "Jesus, what about those non-Christians?" Jesus is not responding to a question about people of other faiths. His response is to Thomas and the others who were looking for comfort and reassurance for the days ahead.
Finally, I wanted to talk about John's theology. What John is up to was made clear at the beginning of his book: "In the beginning was the Word...." John understands Jesus as the primordial Word, the Logos. We might use names such as the Ground of our Being, the Cosmic Christ, the Tao. When we read the "I am" statements in John, we know that they're referring to the "I Am" of Exodus. For John, Jesus was the great "I Am." When we hear one of these "I am" statements in John, it is a signal for us to understand that we are to see Jesus as part of a bigger picture: Jesus embodies the larger reality of God. As the great interfaith scholar and theologian, Huston Smith, says: "God is defined by Jesus, not confined to Jesus."
So again, John 14:6 is not an answer to a question about other religions. John was not addressing interfaith concerns. He was creating a lofty Christology meant to lead his readers into the very mystery of Being, not to create boundaries of who is in and who is out. If we use it as an excuse for an exclusionary position toward those of other faiths or of no faith, we neglect the real message of the text.
Another way to get at this question is to change the framework. In Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored, Marcus Borg calls what many of us grew up with a "heaven and hell Christianity." He describes four characteristics:
- The afterlife: heaven is the reason for being Christian.
- Sin is the central issue in our life with God; forgiveness is the solution.
- What is most important about Jesus is his death, which paid the price for our disobedience.
- The necessity of believing, of affirming a set of core statements to be true.